The Ancient Way

Martial arts offers us a path we can follow for a lifetime.  We have good examples of it.

 

The path we take through life is not set ahead of time.  We take our steps this way: we want things. We act to get them, and we act to avoid what we do not want. As we act our conditions change. Our bodies and minds, our friends and families, all change.

 

In the dojo we act in a way that we think will get us what we want, and help us to avoid what we don’t. We may want to be strong, skillful, and fearless. We do what we think will further those aims.

 

We have successes and we face obstacles. We learn what to do with success. We learn what to do about the obstacles. We change. As we do we change what we mean by “strong, skillful and fearless.”  We change what we do to manifest our new understanding.

 

There is nothing inevitable in it.

 

We succeed in our training because, perhaps without realizing it, we believe in the truth and the power of the law of cause and effect: We believe our actions will bring results. If we work hard with good guidance we can get the results of our effort.  If we rely on talent, hope, magic, deception, pressure or tricks we will not.  It may take time to discover this.

 

Without faith in the efficacy of our own action people become depressed, anxious, resentful and slack.  We can learn from our experience in the dojo that our actions, in all aspects of life, will bear fruit.

 

We follow the ascending arc of life for a while.  We gain skill, endurance, status and influence.  At some point each of us will make a choice: Parabola or asymptote? Drop off the burdens attached to us or release them and ascend?

 

We may be uncertain about how to do this as we go on through life.  Because some of the rewards that got us started and sustained us in training will drop away – but will be replaced by deeper and more valuable ones.

 

On Okinawa and elsewhere in Asia where people are familiar with martial arts culture, young people see by example how to use martial arts as they move through life.

 

In places where there is no such example, we try to make it up.  We will each find our own path, but we do not need to make it all up on our own.

 

Some lose their way as their physical abilities decline. Some try to replace that by seeking validation through influence and recognition.

 

The ‘Seven Ages of Man’ speech from Shakespeare’s “As You Like It,” sounds true. It is acutely observed, articulately expressed, resonates with our experience. It is also wrong.

 

Deeply and dangerously wrong because the fine expression reinforces mistakes that most of us share and take for granted as simply ‘the way things are.’ If we follow our life path according to this prescription, inside or outside the dojo, we go nowhere.

 

The character who makes the speech is lonely, he keeps the world at bay by pretending he is above it all.

 

His pose reminds me of several expert martial arts teachers who, on reaching middle age, were in despair that they were not held in high esteem by the world.

They were depressed because, for all their work and achievement, they were not famous, had not become one of the great ones, were not who they imagined they would someday be.  Their lives ended. These were extreme cases. People loved them. People learned from them.  People mourn them.

We can know that seeking satisfaction in recognition from others instead is futile, and that following the path of training for its own intrinsic rewards, works.

What are those rewards? As you reach the peak of athletic performance – what replaces ‘increase’ as the purpose of training?

 

Nothing is inevitable. Done with skill and proper aspiration, a life of training is rewarding for a lifetime.  But here is the mistake about the path of life that martial artists and many others make…

Shakespeare’s character describes life this way:

 

At first, theinfant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.

Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school.

And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow.

Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, bearded like a leopard,
Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth.

And then the judge,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;

The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered clown,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound.

Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

 

The character who makes this speech is lonely. He believes in nothing. He is committed to nothing. He lays out this sad and cynical roadmap as a leveling, distancing, psychological self-defense.  In his view life means nothing, people are pinballs heading for the hole, whose volition is an illusion. He mocks the virtue of or even the possibility of self-reliance, of doing good, of the efficacy of cause and effect.

 

Should we take it as given that we must slide into this ‘seventh stage’, arcing like a Frisbee in the sun, to rest inert upon the earth? No. It is not true.

It is not just the inevitability of dissolution and indignity that is the error. It is the reduction of each stage of life to a cliché, as if each of our struggles, delights and transformations were not unique and meaningful and deeply our own. As if because they pass they are not real. That is a poisonous error. Advocates of it are themselves poisoned by it.

 

In India, in some times and places, a properly lived life had four stages – student, work and family, retirement, and finally, renunciation. We can learn from their insight.

 

Here and now we might take for granted that retirement is the final stage, because ‘renunciation’ may not be familiar to us. It might sound like ‘not caring about things.”

Renunciation might sound like some kind of deprivation.  It is not. It is letting go, voluntarily, of the things that can not help us. Things that are transitory, things that despite appearances, cannot bring us happiness, things that will slip away and hurt us as we try to hold on to them.

 

Things that demand our attention, attention which we can put to better use in training.

 

There comes a time to jettison the booster stage of the rocket. We needed it early in our journey, when gravity was strong. Now we can let it drop off.   In the second stage of our travels we needed the inertia of mass and guidance to stabilize us.  Now it is holding us back.  If we are on course: this is the time to heave it ho and let it go.

 

The photograph of the Okinawan woman on the shore draws our attention.

 

She looks noble. She is graceful and purposeful, intent and composed.  She embodies the harmony of these opposites.  She is folded up naturally, almost like she was before she was born.

 

But it is not just the miraculous human appearance of this woman doing this simple act. The photographer saw her. He recognized something in her. He took the photograph of her. It was appreciated by people who saw in it an example of something that mattered to them, maybe something they wanted to be.

 

We see something about everyone when we see this woman intent on her seaweed.  At home on her beach, in her hat, in her body and mind.

 

The famous Japanese Zen master Dogen had a moment like that.

 

After many years China, the great imperial power, the source of culture, commerce, ideas and language, was suddenly opened to visitors from Japan. So Dogen, then a young man, went to China seeking deep instruction.

 

On a walk to visit a friend Dogen observed an old monk in the stone courtyard of a monastery, bent over, leaning on a stick, drying a harvest of mushrooms on the pavement, in the hot hot sun.

 

Young, aristocratic, kind, sincere Dogen asked: “Old man, why don’t you have a young monk help you do this hard work on such a hot day?”

 

The man looked up and answered him: ‘Because it is my work.’

 

Because it is my life.

 

Maybe the woman on the beach on Okinawa felt that. Maybe the photographer saw it.

 

The people who shared this image thousands of times, saw something… The millions of people who saw this picture and paused for a moment or two to look at it appreciated that it was not just clever shapes and colors; maybe they found in its subject and its aesthetic something that resonated in their hearts and pointed out a way they’d like to be, even just a little bit, even just for a moment.

 

Our training is like this. And it has been used this way by people for a long time.

 

That is good.

Let’s do that.

 

 

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Photo of woman on beach in Okinawa by David McLain

 

 

Post by Jeff Brooks

 

 

 

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